I read the second issue of Kill Screen in a couple of weeks. This is somewhat important.
My reading has been at an all-time low since Atonement sent me into a bout of catatonia three years ago. Nowadays, I spend most of my time commuting between the congested life-train stations of sleep, children, web catch-up and writing Electron Dance. Shit, there's work in there somewhere too, I just know it.
But there's plenty to like in Kill Screen. Simon Ferrari's coverage of Play The News, a project to create games to supplement topical news stories, was fascinating. It also opened my eyes to the uneasy open conflict between product journalism (packaged, chunky reportage) and process journalism (iterative, by-the-minute updates). Brendon Keogh's piece on playing real-life Halo Capture the Flag, written for story value rather than gaming insight, was also entertaining.
Electron Dance friend Kent Sutherland coaxes an interesting interview out of one of the creators of The Oregon Trail. The relevance of the game was lost on me: I don't think The Oregon Trail was a hit in UK schools but I enjoyed the article for its historical nostalgia, its sense of games crawling out of the primeval swamp, unsure of what they were... or could become. It amuses me that an original acoustic phone modem needed to be described in the article but, you know what, I shouldn't be amused because it just reveals how elderly I am.
Laura "Laura Michet Hates Me" Michet expands on her Second Person Shooter write-up of NASA's Moonbase Alpha for Kill Screen, talking to Daniel Laughlin at NASA Learning Technologies to contrast her reactions to the game with the project's aspirations.
Mitu Khandaker writes about the relevance of gaming academics, which struck me on first glance as a self-indulgent exercise in catharsis, yet it went beyond a personal conundrum to make some good points. She drew in others to address this point such as Dr. Dan Pinchbeck who was behind Dear Esther (interesting) and Korsakovia (frightening but infuriating). I was persuaded by Mitu's proposal: gaming academics should be experimenting with games other people won't try. That's how they should forward the industry, instead of being analytical flotsam and jetsam drifting aimlessly across an ocean of commercial game output.
David Wolinsky's interview with the Marcello Simonetta, the historian attached to Assassin's Creed II, was quite revealing although I felt like it came to a juddering halt too early. One of the tag lines teased about historical accuracy being over-rated in games yet the interview didn't dig deep into it other than to comment it had been done for both fun and technical reasons. I'd like to have seen the question: is this a road we're happy to keep coasting down, throwing away educational opportunities? I don't want to find ourselves stuck with gross scientific distortions like The Day After Tomorrow being Hollywood's greatest contribution to Joe Public's understanding of modern science.
Brian Taylor covers something many of us feel but rarely talk about: how we learn maps in games and make them real environments in our heads. The stunning point Taylor makes, something I'd never considered before, was that rather than appreciate game maps as approximations for real-world spaces, it's better to say they are abstractions of such, containing sufficient detail to suggest place and location. He compares them to Harry Beck's original design for the London Underground Map. This is why I am buying Kill Screen.
I No Like
Of course, it's not all enlightenment and touching the face of God, there were disappointments as well. Ryan Bradley's piece on infant learning really didn't seem to go anywhere for me. And Rob Dubbin's interview with a top Starcraft player who happens to be a hedge fund trader tried to forward a theory that these things were related, but it just didn't amount to anything substantive (hey, it's possible I am biased, considering I work in the same industry).
I was also a bit distanced by Ed Fries' love of Atari 2600 minimalist programming. Now, I was made in this code era - the Atari 8-bit 6502 machine language environment was not too dissimilar to the 2600 straitjacket if you really wanted to push the system's limits. Hammering code to within an inch of its life (you should see my hacked-to-fuck memory copy routine to maximise speed) was normal and this was something I had to unlearn when entering modern software development. Code that was tiny and tight was also... unreadable and unmaintainable.
We used to pat ourselves on the back that a real programmer wrote things in just three lines with all the coolest neat-ass tricks and system hacks. This is a very old perspective. Modern programming languages allow you to express yourself with gusto and verbosity. Second, this very subject of creativity through constraints is handled with more breadth and depth by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort in their brilliant, fantastic book Racing the Beam. This is not to knock Ed's achievement of Halo 2600.
Being only in its second issue, Kill Screen is still picking up its stride. All of the interviews felt like they smashed into a brick wall rather than reach a conclusion - I was constantly looking for a page I thought I'd missed only to discover the page numbers tracked perfectly. To mitigate this they need to append an end-sign to the closing paragraph of each article. (Stop Press! Issue 3, which I received recently, does exactly this.)
Now since the magazine launched last year, Kill Screen has started pumping out online material. I imagine this is to encourage people to visit and eventually buy the magazine For The Real Deal. And GAH! someone over there has got a chronic addiction to massive images (Exhibit A, your honour). In a more worrying move, they've started doing short reviews which feels so anti-Kill Screen, especially after I bought into their magazine manifesto. Even worse, each review sports a double-digit score which feels so yesterday's teenage game journalism. I get it already; they want to be listed on Metacritic.
But I would put all this aside. There's much to praise and Kill Screen the print magazine is a dense thing, containing far more material than you'd expect. Some may quibble over the $20 price tag, but this is some good reading right here.